Monday, March 1, 2010

Book Review: Wanderings, Chaim Potok

I've just completed "Wanderings: History of the Jews", by Chaim Potok. For those of you interested in a concise, all encompassing grounding in Jewish history, this is not a book I would recommend. Potok wrote an ode to the history of mankind itself, deliberately so. His essential thrust was to uncover, study and categorize the basic foundations of every civilization the Jews, and their (our, mine) proto-patriarchs came in contact with or were influenced by. At times, it is almost as if Potok is confused whether to salvage whatever semblance of Jewish-focused narrative remains, for perhaps he has strayed too far, or continue plunging, from one civilization to another, through the whirlwind of ancient paganism, culture, conflict and conquest.

Potok treats the Jews of antiquity with faithful love, and utter derision. For a man who attended Yeshiva University and studied Jewish texts since youth, I am astounded at his lack of insight into basic Biblical commentary - the very Rashi he claims to befriend as a child is ignored, at times the meaning of entire passages are consequently left contorted by his deficient, "modern scholarship" reasoning. When he cannot resolve an inconsistency, meanwhile refusing to read the commentary - how frustrating it is to be holding the very commentary that would resolve his angst - he blames the hapless compilers of the text, in a patronizing, understanding sort of way that leaves one clenching the pages in dismay.

As archeological evidence grows through the Roman period and the dispersion, Potok shines.
The oppressive taxes, the administrative corruption, the widespread street fighting between pagans and Jews, the Sicarii and their deadly daggers, the apocalyptic Messiahs, the urban poor who looked with hate upon the Romans and the landed and merchant rich, the sages who sensed the horrors rebellion would bring, the high priests who sought peace with Rome at almost any cost, the Zealots whose hatred of Rome went beyond all reason, the Essenes who lived serene, monastic lives along the edge of the Dead Sea, the men and women who believed with absolute faith that G-d would miraculously redeem His people from the slavery of Rome - this was Judea during the reign of Gessius Florus. [pg. 279]

I knew little of early mideval Jewish history, from the end of the Amaroim period around 500 C.E. through early European Englightenment, and here Potok shed some light, though unsatisfactorily. He is kind to Islam, even overly so, ignoring completely the Battle of Khaybar and uncharacteristically downplaying the blood of Arab conquest in favor of the explosion of intellect and splendor of Moorish Spain. Though, perhaps the oncoming centuries of incessant persecutions, suffering, torture, martyrdom, conversions, expulsions and exterminations at the hands of Christendom left him misty eyed for the calm that once came with jizya .

Of Jews in Europe, I learned many things. The Spanish Inquisition began in France, and its repeal only came in 1834. Jews played a key function in developing and administering the Polish empire - a role my people filled in many lands, for many kings. The Jewish ghetto was born in Venice, Italy, in 1516, when Jews were permitted to live in the city, so long as they resided in the geto nuovo - the new foundry. There is more, much more, increasingly familiar and repetitive. At times, Potok is poignant.
Those were the centuries when Ashkenazic Jews learned how to die for their way of life. [...] When the mobs came they would make every effort to avoid death. No one sought martyrdom. They would fast in penitence for real or imagined sins. They would seek the protection of bishops and rulers. They would use their weapons to hold off the mobs. But when defeat was near, they would accept it as a sign from G-d that their deaths had been decreed. There might be a pause in the battle. The men would gather for a final decision. To let themselves and their families be taken alive by such mobs was unthinkable. [...] Fathers would say the words, cut the throats of their wives and children, say aloud, "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is one," and commit suicide. [pg. 404-405]
It is a gift to glean pain from numb misery, to feel at all, watching the death unfold, line by line; to imagine oneself amid the horror.

Enough, the rest is cheery, save for those six million, among them most of my family; at this point, no one is counting, least of all Potok. He weaves into Zionism carefully, articulating less his own vision than that of the founders, and the fulfillment of theirs. Elegant. Wrap it up, we ask, as modern history is aplenty, and he does.

I enjoyed the book, let there be no doubt. The sway of Potok's centuries carried me away, convincingly. Yet, it is early on that he stutters, it is in Jewish antiquity that he fails magnificently, nurturing a resentment to feed a single-minded hunger that permeates my thoughts - to prove Potok wrong. Perhaps, one day, and in that he will have triumphed.


  1. thanks for the review
    - as to Moorish Spain - in one of John Julius Norwich's books, probably the Middle Sea, I learnt that Moorish Spain had 3 consecutive kinds of very different rulers of which only the first ones were of the so rightfully admired curious open-minded kind. The second wave were very strict and the third wave less so. Also Jews must have done quite well in Norman Sicily before Catholicism managed to dominate. The most amazing story though was that Norwich writes, trade on the Mediterranean almost came to a standstill because one Muslim ruler commanded all the ships he could get hold of to rescue Jews from Spain - why can't they go back to that laudable tradition?

  2. Hey Silke,

    Unfortunately, until now, I've never been much interested in Jewish history in all but Eastern Europe, from whence I come. Potok does mention that, with the exodus of Jews from Spain, Italy experienced its own reconnaissance of one or two hundred years, as 300,000 more likely literate, if not educated Jews flocked to foreign shores.

    I have encountered much animosity directed at the Khazars by Arabs, and others, that wish to paint all European Jews as descendant from them. On my father's side, we've lived in Bessarabia - roughly an area the Khazars would have controlled - for the last 300 years. In my case, it may actually be true that I'm descendant from them, somewhere. I don't know if only their ruling class converted, or even the limits of their kingdom. I intend to find this out.

    The next two or three Jewish European history books I'm going to read will be about the Spanish Inquisition, the Khazars and Jews of Bessarabia (of which there is scarcely any published material). I hope to return to German and Italian Jewry after that.

  3. Frankly, the history of Jews in central Europe (perhaps all Europe), requires a strong stomach to continue reading. The narrative is consumed by sacrifice and suffering. I want to read something of life, not a chronicle of terrors.

  4. "with the exodus of Jews from Spain, Italy experienced its own reconnaissance of one or two hundred years, as 300,000 more likely literate, if not educated Jews flocked to foreign shores. "

    and they encountered there the refugees from the fall of Constantinople in 1453 - there was an orthodox scholar from Mistra who is said to have been very influential - i.e. Aristotle and others came from Spain to Italy and lots of other ancient Greek stuff came from the Peloponnes and in Florence they created something out of it that gave us to this day at a minimum stunning art a lot of which is in love with life.



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